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Suppose knowledge is not the goal of education

I’ve been waist deep lately in the revision process of our state standards. Some days it feels like neck deep. We’re trying to do things a bit differently with this round of standards – the hope being that specific social studies and historical content is no longer the focus. What becomes important in the revised document is the learning and doing of process instead.

Training kids to think critically, to persuade effectively, and to communicate well. That’s what we need to be doing. And it sounds great – right up until you try and write a document outlining those skills in measurable ways.

So it was nice running across a recent article by Grant Wiggins of Understanding by Design fame. Wiggins does a great job of articulating the true purpose of school – preparing kids for life. And not in some vo-tech or career cluster sort of way. But with content specific skills that allow kids to ask good questions, make good decisions, and think flexibly.

Grant Wiggins suggests

So, suppose knowledge is not the goal of education. Rather, suppose today’s content knowledge is an offshoot of successful ongoing learning in a changing world – in which ‘learning’ means ‘learning to perform in the world.’

How cool is that?

As odd as that might sound for academics, it makes perfect sense in our everyday lives. The point of child-rearing, cooking, teaching, soccer, music, business, or architecture is not ‘knowledge’; rather, knowledge is the growing (and ever-changing) residue of the main activity of trying to perform well for real.

It would be very foolish to learn soccer (or child-rearing or music or how to cook) in lectures. This reverses cause and effect, and loses sight of purpose. Could it be the same for history . . . learning? Only blind habit keeps us from exploring this obvious logic. The point is to do new things with content, not simply know what others know . . .

So what would that look like in a history class?

We need to start thinking like video game designers. (Long time readers know that I’ve talked about this before, once or twice. I love games.)

I also love how great video games start. You don’t have facts or any sort of information. You have a problem or a challenge that needs to be solved. You begin to gather data, generate questions, and look for clues. In the process, you learn the foundational information. And you solve the problem.

So why not think like a video game designer? Give kids a problem to solve and start ‘em off with a few guiding questions.

For the last few years, I’ve been using a great problem to illustrate this. Ready?

What really happened on the morning of April 19, 1775 at Lexington Green? How do you know?

Kids start to figure out that, well . . . we’re not really sure. We’ve got lots of facts and primary documents and eye witnesses and information. But little agreement among any of it. So kids have to start asking questions about reliability and bias and all sorts of fun history stuff.

And just like a video game, kids are practicing and competing in the game of history – solving problems and creating answers, rather than reading the answers from a textbook.

The skills they learn here are transferable to the next problem where we introduce more complex problems, requiring even more complex skills.

It’s all cool enough to get me excited again about trying to figure out how to create state standards from all of this. I’ll keep you posted.

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